Tuesday, July 19, 2016

This Is Why Plagiarism Matters

Photo courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, AP


“Derived from the Latin word plagiarius (‘kidnapper’), to plagiarize means ‘to commit literary theft’ and to ‘present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source’” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed.; 2003; print]).  “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs.  Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft.  Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.  Plagiarism is also a moral and ethical offense” (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, [Seventh Edition]).

So Melania Trump is a kidnapper.

As America wakes up to Day 2 of the big show in Cleveland, everyone will be talking about Melania cribbing her speech from Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.  In the opening paragraph above, I did what writers do:  I attributed material from another source that I have used in this essay.  It’s not rocket science and it is important.

I work with writing students all the time, and very few of them plagiarize on purpose.  The majority of the time, the student-writer simply forgets to use quotation marks for directly quoted material.  They also forget to put in the source.  Or, they do not attribute information they have summarized or paraphrased from a source.  I have only a few occasions in 28 years in the classroom where the student bought the paper complete or copied out a full paper written by someone else.  This accidental plagiarism is a moral error, especially to people who work with words daily, but is also to be expected with students who are learning the value of scholarship and research.

But make no mistake:  plagiarism is theft.  One who plagiarizes steals ideas and yes, words, from another.  It is fraudulent and duplicitous behavior, and even if it is unintended, it colors everything the comes after from that guilty writer.

Let’s examine the definition quoted above.  “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs.  Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft.”  This is why we have warnings about copying DVDs of films.  It is an offense punishable by fines and jail time.  It is called “intellectual property theft,” and it is rampant in this digital frontier.  We are talking here about ideas, not just words.  In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Trump camp tried to say that the sentiments were Melania’s and the words she used were just common expressions that many people say to their children.  The sentences, phrases and chunks of material were almost identical.  The content of the speech, the ideas, may have been similar to those expressed by many parents to their children, but she should have struggled harder to make those expressions her own.  Many of the talking heads on the cable news networks remarked that it was strange the speech did not contain any stories or personal accounts of Donald Trump at home.  The speech read generic, which may have been due to her lack of her own ideas.

The MLA guide goes on to say that “passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.”  It is a funny side note that fraud has played a role in the Trump University scandal.  But here, it would appear Mrs. Trump is trying to concoct a picture of the Trump philosophy about following one’s dreams and having hope, which are common sentiments, but this is where the words most closely align between Mrs. Trump’s speech and Michelle Obama’s words in 2008.

I encounter students all the time who see no harm done with borrowing someone else’s words and sentiments.  Many times, I’ll see photos and quotes taken from websites without attribution, and when I attempt to discuss this with the students, they believe no real crime has been committed.  Granted, I have never heard of anyone in modern times going to prison for plagiarism, but it strikes at the heart of a person’s character.  For journalists, essayists, indeed, all writers, plagiarism is serious business and careers are ruined because of unattributed material.  Students will most likely suffer a failing grade on the paper when they plagiarize.  They might even fail the course, or if the school has a strict honor code, they may have to find a new school.

What Melania Trump did tonight is deliver a fraudulent version of her life with Donald Trump and the abiding precepts with which she lives her life.  She will not receive an F from any teacher, although the press is having a field day.  She will not fail a class and never graduate.  However, if she knowingly delivered this speech kidnapped from another place and time and does not admit her mistake, everything that comes out of her mouth from this point forward will be suspect.  She is a plagiarist and cannot be trusted.  Worse, she has painted the other members of the family, her husband, and her staff with the broad brush of dishonesty, fraud and questionable ethics.  For the rest of their time in the public eye, every one of their words will be scrutinized.  Trump and his retinue have a credibility problem.  Of course, as a candidate, the press has caught him numerous times in exaggerations and even outright lies.  So maybe Melania’s gaff tonight was just one more in a series of frauds perpetrated on the American political scene by the man with the particular hair.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Genius In A Vanished World



We were the only two people in the darkened theater.  One entire row of seats had been roped off because they were damaged when part of the ceiling fell.  The place smelled of stale popcorn and body odor, and we had to wipe the accumulated buttery grease off of the vinyl seats before gingerly sitting down to await the show.  The film was Genius (Lionsgate, 2016), starring Jude Law and Colin Firth and directed by Michael Grandage.  I knew of Max Perkins and his editing work with most of the major writers of the early 20th century:  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.  I knew he had performed more than just editing tasks for his writers, including being a surrogate father-figure.  But what unfolded in front of me over the next 104 minutes was something I had not seen before.  Grandage had managed to illustrate and dramatize what was not considered all that interesting:  a person editing a manuscript.  Grandage gives us extreme close-ups of Perkins’ red pencil as he circles paragraphs and lines out words.  What is cerebral and internal became physical in the cinematic light.  Jude Law captures the maniacal energy of Thomas Wolfe; Colin Firth inhabits Perkins’ calm, methodical, patient character.  It was a special cinematic experience for me.  When it was over, we walked out into the deserted lobby.  Even the employees were gone and we had to let ourselves out of the double-glass doors.  But for a film about a vanished world, that seemed eerily appropriate.

I purchased the book upon which the film was based:  Max Perkins Editor of Genius (New American Library, 2016) by A. Scott Berg, first published in 1978.  Of course, the book is better than the movie because so much of the story was left out of the cinematic treatment.  Perkins worked all of his career with Scribner’s, the first publishers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and a host of other influential writers in a time when novels were the dominant literary art form.  He did far more than just edit.  He shepherded each of his authors into print, loaned them money, parented them, sat with them in the hospitals and mental asylums when they broke down, and in the end, cared for their legacies and estates when they died.  The film focuses mainly on his work with Wolfe, but the book shows us the full spectrum.  He did as much with Fitzgerald who battled all kinds of demons in his career.  He manned-up with Hemingway, journeying down to the Gulf Coast to fish and listen to the big man’s adventures.  He encouraged, cajoled, and inspired his writers to greater artistic heights than they could reach on their own.  The book clearly indicates that Max Perkins is the genius in the title whereas the film leaves one unclear who is the actual genius, Perkins or Wolfe.  Both fit the artistic definition.

What impressed me the most about these two pieces of art is the vanished world they represent.  Scribner’s published a magazine for years, and that is where many of the writers got their start or later, serialized their novels before publication.  That kind of system no longer exists.  Magazines and newspapers have dried up.  Writers are not writers anymore; they are “content providers.”  What is also interesting are the elements of time and physicality.  In the film and in the book, we see Wolfe, a writer of prodigious manuscripts, submit his work in crates of rubber-banded sheets, some handwritten and other typed.  The wooden boxes fill Perkins’ office.  He employs a battalion of typists to convert the manuscript into one massive draft of thousands of pages.  He then works, line by line with the author, to cut and shape the manuscript into a coherent novel of substantial artistic achievement.  In the book, we see the gestation period of a novel.  Fitzgerald writes and writes, lays off for a year to work for Hollywood only to return to the novel and write some more.  Perkins worries that it has been five or ten years since an author’s last book and the public may have forgotten him.  Hemingway seems the most disciplined of writers, setting himself a daily word count and working hard for months on end to finish a novel.  Then he heads off for an African excursion or to cover a war.  So time is given for these writers to compose their works.  And all of them submit physical manuscripts which are then worked over, by hand, across the desk of Perkins in collaboration with the writer, moving line-by-line through the text.  There is no sense of urgency for instant gratification.  Sure, the writers and Perkins wait for reviews and sales reports when a novel hits the bookstores (yes, bookstores!).  But the world today, with its self-publishing business, the rise of Amazon, and the death of physical bookstores is so much different.

I liked the film Genius, but it is geared for a very particular audience—on my night, just two people!  I am amazed the film was made.  When I exited that empty lobby near midnight on a hot summer evening, I was struck by the loss of that vanished world.  The novels birthed by Max Perkins and his writers were celebratory events when published.  They were anticipated by the reading public.  I am not sure novels hold the same cultural relevance now.  Films hold some regard in our culture, but they are big bombastic affairs with more special effects than literary story.  I cannot imagine people being intrigued by what an editor does, or how one person could shape a cultural entity like a novel.  The world of Max Perkins and his writers is a vanished world and it is strange that this one fact puts it on the same level as a film that also depicted a vanished world but was a blockbuster:  Jurassic Park.  When Max Perkins roamed the earth, we had a literary culture.  Not anymore.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Paul Simon Contemplates Retirement



After 61 years of making music and defining the age of folk music as well as world music, pop music, and top-40 music, Paul Simon is looking at retiring, The New York Times reported last week.  This is a musician who started his career at the tender age of thirteen and has not stopped at 74 years young.

“It’s an act of courage to let go,” he says in the article.  “I am going to see what happens if I let go.  Then I’m going to see, who am I?  Or am I just this person that was defined by what I did?  And if that’s gone, if you have to make up yourself, who are you?”

He seems a bit long in the tooth to be questioning himself or his vital importance to musical history.  Simon is a consummate musician, songwriter, lyricist, poet.  I remember walking into a freshmen literature class during my undergraduate years and picking up the course anthology to see not only the usual fare of poets and writers, but there, in the midst of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, were Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  They are poets as well as musicians and songwriters, and if what passes for lyrics in the dreck-dropping nowadays, they are leagues ahead of their contemporaries.  Songwriters, like poets, should be masters of the language.  Simon is, and we will not see his like again once he puts down his guitar for good.

His words about letting go remind me of the Buddhist idea of detachment.  He is, first and foremost, a human being.  He is also a human being with a gift, and he has given unselfishly for decades.  In the 60s, he defined the American folk scene with his golden-voiced partner Art Garfunkel.  As with all good things, that partnership dissolved with time only to reform and reignite across the years—I think it is currently kaput, but who could forget the Concert in Central Park circa 1982 with an intimate crowd of 500,000 New Yorkers.  Simon went solo in the 1970s and early 80s before joining up again with Garfunkel.  These were the Still Crazy After All These Years and One Trick Pony eras.  I remember many a hot summer night listening to my transistor radio under my pillow, falling asleep to “Late in the Evening,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Slip Sliding Away,” tracks that were ubiquitous on FM airwaves.  The late 80s and 90s saw Simon exploring world music with African influences and bandmates on the Graceland album, followed up with the Latin American energies of The Rhythm of the Saints.  I bought Graceland on vinyl and wore the grooves away before purchasing a CD copy which I still have on rotation today.  I love every track, but my favorites are “Under African Skies” with Linda Ronstadt singing harmony, “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “Myth of Fingerprints” with seminal L.A. band Los Lobos.

Simon was not always successful with his endeavors, but he never “phoned it in” on any album or simply duplicated his previous successes.  He took some heat for the failed Broadway show soundtrack, Songs from the Capeman.  He also never fully escaped the Simon and Garfunkel years, even though he performed their music solo in every concert.  It had been a long marriage fraught with tensions and yes, jealousies and tantrums.  Rumors floated around about who was to blame, but what was never in doubt was the talent of the duo.  Garfunkel wrote less of their catalog, but his soaring vocals often made the record, such as in the tracks, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Scarborough Fair.”

Simon’s part in the harmonies cannot be underestimated, but he is the songwriter who penned many of their biggest hits.  His subsequent work as a solo artist also proves his incredible talent to remain current and vital over six decades.  His voice and playing have remained strong, but he is feeling his age, according to the article.  He now requires 15 hours of sleep a day, which leaves a sparse nine hours of waking productivity.  I cannot imagine what that is like, to go to bed at eight in the evening only to rise at eleven the next morning.  The days are indeed “slip sliding away.”  The article cites no reason for this abundant need for sleep, but does mention his failing eye sight and the need he has to rest his voice for longer bouts between concerts.

He also alludes to the fact that it would be good to quit while he is still popular.  The words of Allen Ginsburg sums up his position best:  “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”  “I’ve seen fame turn into absolute poison when I was a kid in the 60s,” he says.  “It killed Presley.  It killed Lennon.  It killed Michael Jackson.  I’ve never known anyone to have gotten an enormous amount of fame who wasn’t, at a minimum, confused by it and had a very hard time making decisions.”  Simon, despite his fame, has made mostly the right decisions.  But he feels it best to lay down the guitar and live a quieter life now.

It is common in middle age to see things we have grown accustomed to disappear, one by one.  Favorite restaurants where the best meals could be had, tiny shops serving the best cups of tea and coffee, landmarks where significant life events occurred, and the people, the people who have meant so much to us.  Paul Simon created more than just the soundtrack to The Graduate; for most of us who are children of the 1960s and 70s, he created the soundtrack of our lives.  If I could speak directly to him I would say that artists never “retire.”  They always, always find another page to turn, another song to sing.  We can only hope this so for Paul Simon.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bill Cunningham

Photo courtesy of Lenzartis


One of my heroes passed last week.  Bill Cunningham first drew my attention when I saw a documentary about him.  He was a tiny wisp of a man, always with a blue smock jacket, his bicycle, and his camera as he raced through the streets of midtown Manhattan photographing street fashions for his weekly spread in The New York Times.  At night, he hovered and flitted through the summer garden parties of the rich and famous to document the gatherings in a second collection prominent in the paper’s Sunday Style section.  At 87, he seemed indestructible, that he would go on for ages and ages even though he appeared delicate and child-like.  No one does the kind of work Bill did.  He was an artist living an ascetic life.  His photography was everything to him.  I admired his singular focus, his obsession with his art.  Like most true artists, he would continue even if no one paid him.  In fact, there were times in his career when he tore up his paychecks.  He wanted to be unbiased in his approach to fashion and culture.  To accept payment meant that he was beholden to someone, and that was not acceptable to the way Bill worked.  He eventually took the job at the Times for the health insurance.  The paper and its editors let Bill do what he did best, working with film long after most professional photographers had switched to digital.  He eventually did make the change but on his own terms, continuing his painstaking process of editing hundreds of photographs down to the select few that appeared in the paper each week.

Of course, when I first saw the documentary, I started carrying a camera everywhere with me, but I quickly realized there was only one Bill Cunningham, and although I loved his pure artistry and focus, I did not have the eye, the quick shutter reflex, the diligence.  I am more suited to word pictures.  Besides, Los Angeles and its attention-seeking whores are far less photogenic and fashionable than their counterparts in New York.  And as the band Missing Persons told us all those years ago, nobody walks in L.A.  Bill Cunningham photographed a city, an attitude, an aesthetic unique to a time and place; it cannot be duplicated.

It is admirable and necessary what Bill did for forty years, traveling through the streets and lives of New Yorkers with a camera, documenting the color and beauty of fashion on the avenue.  He caught it all:  “fanny packs…Birkin bags…gingham shirts…florescent biker shorts,” according to his obituary in the paper for which he worked.  He was an artist, social scientist, an anthropologist.  In the documentary, we see his stuffed file cabinets in his monk-like cell above Carnegie Hall where he slept on a tiny cot and shared a communal bathroom with other residents.  He delights in his simple breakfast at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street: a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee for three bucks.  “Money is the cheapest thing,” he said when asked why he ripped up some of his paychecks.  “Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

He literally amassed thousands of images in his archive.  Hopefully, some museum will snap up that archive, organize it, and open it for scholars and the general public.  These words from his obituary come closest to an artist’s credo:  “When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn—sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed.  At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera—to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands.  I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”

I would like to think his spirit is still on the streets of Manhattan, capturing the beauty of another day in a springtime that will last an eternity.  Godspeed, Bill.

To hear more about what it was like to work with Bill Cunningham on a daily basis, read this essay from his assistant.